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Emeli Sandé a treat to see on her way up

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2010 was a great year for Swedish dance-pop singer Robyn. Her music had tapped into the zeitgeist in Europe and come ashore here to break into or be broken by America. She put out three EPs and received near-unanimous critical lauds. She was the first performer at that year's Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago to turn heads -- this feisty, diminutive woman with serious pipes and a serious blonde crop. I remember watching that show and thinking, "Wow, nearly everyone I know would be all over this."

Tuesday night, Lincoln Hall, and here's Emeli Sandé -- another feisty, diminutive woman with serious pipes and a serious blonde crop, a mantle filling with European awards and high-profile gigs (she sang at both the opening and closing ceremonies at last year's London Olympics), and a campaign to take America by storm or be taken by it. I had the same thoughts. The difference: Robyn fascinated and excited, but based on Tuesday's show Emeli's got the love on her side.

The sold-out Lincoln Hall crowd couldn't contain their lovin'. When Sandé succeeded in a breathtaking vocal run (for both her and the audience), cheers and whoops -- more like atta-girl than holy-cow. Everything Sandé accomplished, which was a lot, met with hollers. Even when nothing happened, the occasional fan was unable to contain a wrenching, adoring scream. When she introduced her bass player, James Beatt, as the only accompaniment for the breakup-threshold ballad "Suitcase," the crowd unloaded its excess love onto him -- wolf whistles (not that cute), applause as he played (not that great), one cry of "Marry me, James!" (oh good grief).

Early in her brief set, Sandé thanked the crowd for "taking a chance on new music." Sandé's brand of soulful pop isn't that new. She's emerging in line with classic U.K. talents before her, from Sade to Jessie Ware -- based on her expert songwriting, her subdued but sensual grace, a voice made powerful by how it belts as much as by how lightly it brushes. The upbeat pop of "Wonder," the smooth R&B of "Next to Me," the rich affective quality of ballads like "River" and "Clown" have a timeless, stately quality. She's already mixing things up a bit, too, turning the declarative "Where I Sleep" into a loose-limbed reggae arrangement.

Her club show has some growing to do. Sandé recognized the love in the air and tried to channel it into overly drawn-out singalong segments about four times too many. The only member of her band adding much to the electricity of the moment is her sparky drummer. The tracked harmony vocals could go. But Sandé is clearly a physical and emotional voice with a long and rewarding (again, for both her and the audience) career ahead.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on January 23, 2013 9:00 AM.

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